Politics in the Heisei Era: Big Fixes but Still Flawed


Japan’s political landscape has undergone a major transformation over the past 30 years, as the 1955 system was swept away by extensive electoral and administrative reforms, and the LDP lost its uninterrupted grip on power. The changes, though, have not been enough to enable Japan to respond effectively to a rapidly changing global environment.

End of an Era

This year marks the end of the three-decade-old Heisei era in Japan, as Emperor Akihito will abdicate in April. From a global perspective, it is also the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Cold War. A period of 30 years is roughly a generation; those born as Heisei dawned will now be having children of their own. The world, too, will be entering a new phase, as the post–Cold War era draws to a close.

The name of the imperial era, Heisei, is said to express a desire for peace at home and abroad, as well as on earth and in heaven. In the context of Japanese politics, though, the period that began in 1989 has been one of discontinuity and turbulence. Here, I will give an overview of the major political developments over the past three decades, identifying the factors, both external and institutional, that induced big changes and the consequences of those changes.

Sweeping Changes at Home and Abroad

By external factors, I am referring to major shifts in the international environment and Japan’s society and economy. The former, chronologically speaking, include the end of the Cold War, structural changes in the global economy wrought by globalization and the information revolution, and, more recently, the rise of China.

During the Cold War, Japan was positioned as a member of the Free World and the only non-Western industrially developed democracy, and this was the premise on which the country’s policies were drafted. While the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy was its security alliance with the United States, its engagement with international society was predominantly through economic activities. These fundamental premises were overturned, though, in the three decades since the end of the Cold War.

The big changes in Japan’s society and economy, meanwhile, were engendered by attempts by businesses to adapt to the protracted post-bubble stagnation, rapid globalization, and intensified global competition. Before the asset bubble burst, most Japanese companies hired new recruits straight out of school and kept the employees on the payroll throughout their working life. Businesses demanded long hours and compliance with management decisions—no matter how unreasonable—in return for livelihood security for both the workers and their families. Such arrangements, though, are becoming a thing of the past.

There have been dramatic shifts in employment formats, labor practices, and even family configurations in response to mounting public debt, a dwindling and aging population, and changing values about women in the workforce. This has resulted in major revisions in related government policies.

Electoral and Administrative Reforms

The biggest challenge confronting political leaders in the face of these external changes was to overhaul the policies that had become outdated and ineffective.

This was the thrust of the reforms undertaken in the 1990s, particularly those to reshape political governance. While many different factors no doubt contributed to the realization of those reforms, the overriding challenge was to enhance the responsiveness of the political system in the face of the rapid and broad-ranging transfiguration of the post-Cold War world.

The most prominent changes made to the political system were the electoral reforms of 1994 and the administrative reforms implemented mainly in 2001.

The former consisted of replacing multimember districts of three to five seats for House of Representative elections with a system combining single-seat districts and proportional representation. This was aimed at facilitating changes in government by encouraging a two-party system and boosting the centralized authority of the respective parties’ leaders. The party that wins the general election, it was envisioned, would be able to form government even without coalition partners, and policymaking would be advanced in an efficient, top-down manner by the prime minister and his cabinet ministers. The public would be able to voice its approval or disapproval in general elections by either endorsing the party in power or voting it out.

Administrative reform, meanwhile, centered on strengthening the office of the prime minister and streamlining the central government bureaucracy, with the emphasis on the former. While the electoral reforms anticipated a top-down style of policymaking, the prime minister was left without the resources to advance a more forceful agenda. Administrative reform, therefore, sought to give the office the power to push through political priorities, instead of deferring to the demands of the various ministries. In concrete terms, the Cabinet Secretariat was expanded, a new Cabinet Office was established, and the prime minister was able to appoint cabinet ministers with special portfolios.

Major Events in Japan and the World over the Past Three Decades

1989 Heisei era begins following the demise of Emperor Shōwa; consumption tax introduced.
Pro-democracy protests held around Tiananmen Square; Berlin Wall falls.
1991 Gulf War begins; collapse of the Soviet Union.
1993 Hosokawa Morihiro becomes first non-Liberal Democratic Party prime minister for nearly 40 years.
European Union formally established.
1994 Four political reform bills enacted, including those to revise the electoral system.
1995 Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway sarin attack.
1997 Failure of Hokkaidō Takushoku Bank and the shutdown of Yamaichi Securities.
2001 Central government agencies realigned into the Cabinet Office and 12 ministries.
September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
2002 Visit to Pyongyang by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō and the signing of the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.
Euro banknotes and coins introduced in 12 EU states.
2003 Iraq War begins.
2008 Bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers triggers global economic crisis.
2009 Democratic Party of Japan wins general election and forms government.
2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
2012 LDP returns to power and Abe Shinzō begins second period as prime minister.
2016 Donald Trump elected as president of the United States.

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Change of Government

These institutional reforms ushered in wholesale changes to the political status quo. The introduction of single-seat electoral districts heightened the likelihood of the Liberal Democratic Party being ousted from power, which is exactly what happed in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan—founded in 1996—swept into office. Power within both the LDP and DPJ became more centralized, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s refusal to endorse candidates unwilling to support his postal privatization agenda in 2005. The unchallenged authority Prime Minister Abe Shinzō enjoys in the LDP today is another example of the consolidation of power in the party president.

Koizumi deftly applied the added powers of his office to steadily advance his stated reforms. Policy directions were determined not by Kasumigaseki but by the Kantei with the support of the chief cabinet secretary and specially appointed cabinet ministers, notably Takenaka Heizō, who served as Koizumi’s minister of state for economic and fiscal policy and minister of state for financial services before he become a Diet member. The prime minister’s initiatives were carried out by the Cabinet Office, which some feel has now become too large. Gone are the days when the prime minister looked on as policy battles were primarily fought between ministries—and often within ministries—with the Ministry of Finance having the final say.

Disintegration of a Viable Opposition

The who and how behind policymaking decisions have undergone a transformation over the past three decades, but whether the changes have produced policies that are more in line with global developments is rather dubious.

The failure to achieve greater political responsiveness can be attributed to two main factors. The first is that some domains either remained outside the scope of the electoral and administrative reforms or had measures implemented that ran counter to the reforms’ goals, thereby diluting their impact. For example, the Bank of Japan’s independence was enhanced in the 1990s, which later hindered efforts by the government and the BOJ to coordinate their economic policies. And since electoral reforms left the House of Councillors largely untouched, policymaking came to a standstill whenever there was a divided government.

The other factor is the unintended consequences of political reform. The mixing of single-member districts with a proportional representation system turned out to be a big deterrent to a viable two-party system, as members of a weakened opposition could splinter and form yet smaller groups in the hope of winning seats through proportional representation. This greatly reduced the impetus for Diet members to remain affiliated with either of the two major parties.

Having once experienced opposition status, some ruling party politicians, moreover, developed a great fear of again being dislodged from power. So instead of openly battling their rivals on the merits of their respective policy positions, they have been making rosy promises to stay in power at whatever cost. The chances of an administration implementing necessary but unpopular measures—such as a tax hike—have thus dwindled.

A Challenge for the Next Generation of Leaders

The institutional political changes made during the Heisei era have been sweeping, and yet they have not been enough to engender policies that are more effective and responsive to worldwide and social trends. The voting public appears to be growing tired of unending reforms and have begun to view the Heisei era as “lost decades” not just in economic but also in political terms.

Prime Minister Abe’s long tenure has provided welcome respite from the political turbulence of the recent past, but there has not been much progress either. The current semblance of political stability, moreover, pales in comparison to the dominance enjoyed by the LDP under the 1955 system. In fact, stability may be a high price to pay when what the country really needs is the ability to keep up with the relentless pace of change in the external environment. Enhancing responsiveness, in addition to shoring up areas where earlier reforms fell short, may be the next big challenge for the coming generation of Japan’s political leaders.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 11, 2019. Banner photo: Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro, right, and LDP President Kōno Yōhei exchange signed agreements on January 29, 1994, following the enactment of political reform bills. © Jiji.)

politics political reform Heisei